Monday, October 17, 2016

Of all the sciences, biology is the most lawless...

From The Gene: An Intimate History:
Technology, I said before, is most powerful when it enables transitions—between linear and circular motion (the wheel), or between real and virtual space (the Internet). Science, in contrast, is most powerful when it elucidates rules of organization—laws—that act as lenses through which to view and organize the world. Technologists seek to liberate us from the constraints of our current realities through those transitions. Science defines those constraints, drawing the outer limits of the boundaries of possibility. Our greatest technological innovations thus carry names that claim our prowess over the world: the engine (from ingenium, or “ingenuity”) or the computer (from computare, or “reckoning together”). Our deepest scientific laws, in contrast, are often named after the limits of human knowledge: uncertainty, relativity, incompleteness, impossibility
Of all the sciences, biology is the most lawless; there are few rules to begin with, and even fewer rules that are universal. Living beings must, of course, obey the fundamental rules of physics and chemistry, but life often exists on the margins and interstices of these laws, bending them to their near-breaking limit. The universe seeks equilibriums; it prefers to disperse energy, disrupt organization, and maximize chaos. Life is designed to combat these forces. We slow down reactions, concentrate matter, and organize chemicals into compartments; we sort laundry on Wednesdays. “It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe,” James Gleick wrote. We live in the loopholes of natural laws, seeking extensions, exceptions, and excuses. The laws of nature still mark the outer boundaries of permissibility—but life, in all its idiosyncratic, mad weirdness, flourishes by reading between the lines. Even the elephant cannot violate the law of thermodynamics—although its trunk, surely, must rank as one of the most peculiar means of moving matter using energy.